BY Bob Adams
November 20 2009 10:00 AM ET
Bryan Levinson sees himself as a social matchmaker for HIV-positive gay men. "More Barbra Streisand, less Carol Channing," chuckles the 40-year-old, who founded the social-networking association Strength in Numbers in Los Angeles seven years ago, driven largely by his own difficulties in meeting other HIVers. The organization's activities were such an immediate hit that SIN rapidly expanded to other cities and today reaches more than 35,000 men around the world, including through a new chapter in Argentina.
Now living in San Francisco, where he works as an attorney, Levinson aims to expand SIN's reach through the new, free website SINMen.net. He devotes his free time to developing the site and planning SIN's first Mexican cruise, scheduled for May 2010 [SINcruise.com].
"I don't make any money off any of this; everything I do is out of my own pocket," Levinson says of his passion for SIN. "But I like it that way because there's never any motive other than helping out other guys living with HIV."
Jack Mackenroth could've kept quiet. He could've told the Project Runway producers that his living with HIV was not to become another morsel of gossip for reality TV-obsessed couch potatoes to munch on. Once his season hit the air, two years ago, and he was thrust into the spotlight, he could've turned down the requests that he become a poster boy for HIV advocacy work. He could've ignored the avalanche of heartfelt e-mails from fans thrilled to see a robustly healthy role model fulfilling his own dreams.
With his superhero build and square-jawed good looks, Mackenroth, 40, never really saw any other option than to stay true to his own personal philosophy: to be out and proud about his HIV status, the red cape waving behind his neck. (Or perhaps he'd sport a simple pair of Speedos, since he has a side gig as a competitive swimmer.)
HIV-positive for nearly 20 years, the University of California, Berkeley, grad and former model-turned-Parsons alum and fashion slave has parlayed his appearance on the popular reality show into not just a television and design career but an opportunity to become a very public face of HIV -- including gracing the cover of HIV Plus in January/February 2008...naked!
Merck & Co., a major antiretroviral pharmaceutical company, hired him to work both as a public speaker and as a liaison to AIDS service organizations around the country. And on Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern, he cohosts the HIV-focused Internet radio show "POZIAM."
"I think -- in the grand scheme of life -- what do I want to be remembered for?" Mackenroth says. "Making pretty clothes is nice, and being on TV or whatever, but if you really make a difference in someone's life, that's a lot more important."
Called Living Positive by Design, his speaking tour aims to reduce stigma for HIVers, encourage them to take good care of their health, and provide them a sense of hope that they too can live out their ambitions. He has also started posting newsmagazine-style webisodes on the program's website, LivingPositivebyDesign.com.
"There's still a huge stigma wrapped around being HIV-positive," he says. "The more you talk about it and the more people see me -- and see me doing good and living a "normal life" -- then it normalizes HIV. I think anyone who's HIV-positive can do their part just by being open." --B.R.
Brandon M. Macsata
As a "limousine Republican" who believes in both social and fiscal responsibility in government, Macsata has used his political consulting firm, the Macsata-Kornegay Group, to establish himself in Washington, D.C., as an advocate of both disability and HIV rights. Right-wing politics may seem an odd match for the chief executive officer of the ADAP Advocacy Association, but he says that Newt Gingrich, of all people, agrees that championing for the long-term cost savings provided by the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs makes for sound fiscal policy.
"I think there's so much need out there," says Macsata, who was infected with HIV in 2002. "And so often it's an issue that can be overshadowed by big government bailouts and other big issues of the day."
Tony Mills, MD
When Tony Mills was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, providing medical care to other HIVers was so psychologically overwhelming that he switched to the field of anesthesiology. "Not only did I feel like I couldn't do anything for my patients, since they were all dying," he says, "but it also was like facing my own mortality every day. I felt there was no hope for me either."
When his own health began to fail in the mid 1990s, Mills went on disability, but like so many other HIVers he rebounded dramatically upon the arrival of highly active antiretroviral therapy. His hope renewed, Mills opened a private HIV-focused practice in Los Angeles, through which he provides, he says, not only top-notch medical care to his patients but also inspiration.
"I want them to see that I am confident, that I will live a long and productive life, and that they will too," says the 48-year-old.
His own recovery was so encouraging that Mills even publicly talked about his experiences with HIV as a candidate in the 1998 International Mr. Leather contest, which he won. "There was still a lot of stigma in the gay community at the time," Mills says of deciding to compete. "I wanted to show people that I'm a strong, healthy man who also happens to have HIV, and that's OK."
Influenced by heroes such as Pedro Zamora and the ACT UP leaders of the 1980s and '90s, Todd Murray, who was infected at age 20 in 2001, is the future of AIDS activism. After attending a Ryan White National Youth Conference in 2004, he realized how few AIDS organizations were targeting youths, even though half of new HIV infections are in people under 25. So he founded a public-speaking organization called Hope's Voice International and, eventually, its companion visibility campaign, "Does HIV Look Like Me?"
Operating out of Salem, Ore., Murray's M.O. is to use inspirational -- as opposed to fear-based -- messages to both reduce HIV stigma and prevent transmission among young people around the United States and in several countries abroad as well. "My work, it celebrates the realities of our lives," he says.